Roberts formerly served as the UVA football program’s director of life skills from 2011 to 2012, but has primarily worked with K-12 education since he retired from the NFL in 2000. Roberts said working for Special Olympics is a way to help people whose voices aren’t loud enough to be heard.
“They have great things to say and have unbelievable gifts and talents,” said Roberts, whose current job takes him to schools around the country, “but just because of their circumstances – whether it’s socioeconomic or intellectual disabilities – they just get discounted and marginalized. That has become my purpose – to serve those people.”
Roberts said the roots of that purpose can be traced back to his time at UVA.
As the son of a janitor and a maid, he didn’t feel like he fit in when he first arrived on Grounds.
Luckily, Roberts said he had had people in his life, like Welsh and former UVA defensive line coach Danny Wilmer, who made him believe otherwise.
The hulking Roberts, who wore No. 72 on the field because of his admiration for former Dallas Cowboy great Ed “Too Tall” Jones, recalled walking into University Hall with his shoulders slouched so that he wouldn’t seem quite so imposing, so he would fit in better.
“Coach Wilmer came up behind me and grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled my shoulders back and said, ‘I want you to walk tall like you belong here, just like everyone else!’” Roberts said. “He said, ‘This is your locker room, your weight room, your football field, your jersey, your helmet.’
“Just those small words of encouragement gave me a sense of belonging, like I was connected to something. To this day, that was one of the most powerful interactions I’ve ever had with anybody in my life. He just took this kid who came from a really poor family with no resources. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. He and Coach Welsh took a chance on me.”
It was a gamble that didn’t look very good early on when Roberts landed on academic probation and nearly flunked out of school.
“For one spring football season, I didn’t play football and just focused on academics,” Roberts said. “I couldn’t go to practice and had to work out on my own. But it saved me.”